As the riders begin putting their last touches on preparation for the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Bogense, Denmark, Cyclingnews looks at the contenders for victory in the five races over two days this weekend. But the question on most minds is one that has been the topic of every pre-race discussion this season: Who can beat Mathieu van der Poel?
If the past three World Championships are any indication, the only person who can beat Mathieu van der Poel is Mathieu van der Poel.
In 2015, Van der Poel and Belgium's Wout Van Aert emerged from the U23 ranks as two of the top elite riders, and were set to light up the Worlds in Tabor. That year it was Van Aert who succumbed to mechanical issues and crashes while Van der Poel emerged victorious, but the Dutchman's fortunes at Worlds have not been the same since.
Instead, it has been a meticulously-prepared Van Aert who surged to three consecutive rainbow jerseys. In 2016, Van der Poel's crash with Van Aert was only part of the problem, as the then-21-year-old Van der Poel looked flat as he faded to fifth in Zolder. In Luxembourg the next year, multiple punctures decimated the field, including an on-form Van der Poel. But Van Aert's clever tyre choice proved to be the key to a third victory.
Last season, Van der Poel won the European Championships, World Cup, Superprestige and DVV Trofee, but when it came to Worlds he was like a schoolboy who forgot to study for finals, and was hardly in the picture after Van Aert sailed away in the first two laps.
The tables have turned this year, perhaps, as Van Aert has yet to beat Van der Poel in a head-to-head, and has only a handful of wins. Maybe it's due to a summer spent mourning the loss of a teammate and legal battles over his contract. Perhaps it's a loss of focus as Van Aert prepares to launch into the WorldTour with Jumbo-Visma. Or maybe Van der Poel has simply started to take the whole thing more seriously. He's been absolutely flawless and few pundits expect the kind of meltdown we saw last season to repeat itself.
At any rate, during these past four seasons, these two young riders have leapfrogged an entire generation of cyclo-cross specialists, swamping notable talents like Kevin Pauwels, 35 - the World Cup winner in 2015, whose star has waned so much he failed to make the Belgian team for Bogense. Lars van der Haar (Telenet-Fidea), World Cup winner in 2014 and only 28, has had to settle for fighting for the scraps in C2 races. Tom Meeusen, 31, hasn't even been getting much TV time.
The only riders even within striking distances are from Van Aert's cohort - World Cup winner Toon Aerts and Michael Vanthourenhout. Aerts in particular has been showing rising form, technique and confidence and was brilliant en route to second in Hoogerheide, though the fast course in Bogense is less likely to favour his abilities.
Unpredictable elite women's race on tap in Bogense
If the elite men's race goes as expected - as an impressive but undramatic solo win by Van der Poel - the elite women's event is guaranteed to be a far more unpredictable and scintillating drama, given the vast array of great performances this season.
Marianne Vos, seven times a world champion in the discipline, is almost back to her old dominance, having secured the overall World Cup despite a reduced season. In her absence even two-time world champion Sanne Cant has struggled to hold back an onslaught of surging talent in the field.
Lucinda Brand has shown herself to be on rising form, taking a dominant victory in the mud bog of Hoogerheide. Her other wins in Namur, Tabor, the Dutch Championships, Druivencross and Azencross display a versatility that will be well-suited to a fast course in Bogense.
Mountain biker Jolanda Neff's win in the GP Sven Nys was a shot across the bow of the full-time 'cross racers. Annemarie Worst's win in the European Championships will have convinced everyone they can't bring her to the line for a sprint. Denise Betsema's dominant victory in Koksijde will make her more heavily marked.
With the Dutch fielding such a strong squad, the race will be tough for riders like Katie Compton, Katie Keough, Katerina Nash, Eva Lechner and Alice Arzuffi to break through but without one dominant rider to watch, it really will be anyone's game.
In the U23 ranks, defending champion Eli Iserbyt and Briton Thomas Pidcock remain the favourites, but Frenchman Antoine Benoist and Briton Ben Turner have shown excellent form of late.
In the U23 women's event, the field will be without defending champion Evie Richards, who is out with a knee injury. It will once more be a battle of the Dutch, with Ceylin del Alvarado the stand-out of the season and the World Cup winner. Last year's runner-up, Fleur Nagengast, Yara Kastelijn and the USA's Clara Honsinger have all shown fine form lately.
Great Britain's Ben Tulett will be back to defend his title in the junior men's event but he has had a tough season with knee problems and is an unlikely contender. Other talents have come in to fill the vacuum, in particular World Cup winner Witse Meeusen and Belgian champion Ryan Cortjens in addition to the impressive 17-year-old son of cyclo-cross legend, Thibaut Nys. The latter had a hard crash in Hoogerheide, but was cleared to race in Bogense.
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